The making of Defense Grid 2, part five

03/13/2014 by Russ Pitts | Source: Polygon
The founders of Hidden Path Entertainment tell the story now only rarely. It's hard to get it out of them. In fact, in almost a year of building trust, conducting closed-door interviews, attending all-access meetings and spending hours on site at Hidden Path Entertainment's Bellevue, Wash. headquarters, it's the one thing that they haven't offered to share with me — until now.

I've been reporting on the development of Hidden Path's Defense Grid 2 since April of 2013. I've read all of the design documents and industry reports. I've interviewed every member of the Defense Grid 2 team. I've been in rooms where even certain members of that team aren't allowed. And yet, month after month, the story of what exactly happened with the launch of the original Defense Grid has eluded me. They've simply not wanted to talk about it — on or off record.

Part of why the founders don't tell this story relates to the business of making video games itself. A game that doesn't ship isn't always a failed game. Technology can be retooled, assets redirected, entire ideas shelved and then resurrected years later. The work put in on one game may lead to new work on something else, bigger or better. What's worse, a game that does get shipped doesn't always make money. Sometimes they cost so much to make they never make that money back. Sometimes game development is just spinning your wheels, waiting for the big hit that almost never comes. Some studios lumber on for years, making games, releasing them, losing money, until inevitability eventually catches up to them and they die. That's the business of making games.

Many of the best stories in this industry don't ever get told — the true stories of why studios fail, how people lose jobs or gain them. How certain games get made — or don't. Those stories are too harmful to tell because this is business, and there are reputations to protect. Even when a game or a studio fails, the people involved might still find another job. And the people who screwed them before might be the ones now paying the bills.

This is one of those stories. It involves two big companies and one little one. It involves a deal gone bad and a partner that couldn't be relied upon. It's the story of how Defense Grid almost went into the coffin before it ever saw the light of day and the machinations at the highest levels of the industry that conspired to close the lid. It's about a last minute save and a triumph that ultimately came at too great a cost.

And the most extraordinary thing about this story is that it's not extraordinary at all. This story could be about almost any game you've ever played and several hundred you never will. It is a glimpse into the fickle world of business and politics that simmers underneath the buzz and excitement of making video games. It is the dark, very human and ultimately political underbelly of the business of making fun.

This is game development.


PROLOGUE: THE STORY OF DEFENSE GRID

Defense Grid was dead. That was the message, delivered by Microsoft in the summer of 2008, just a few months before the game's planned release.

Hidden Path had poured all the money it could spare into a small project to make an original game: Defense Grid, a downloadable sci-fi tower defense title that it could call its own and that would prove Hidden Path was a company that knew how to make games.

It's what every developer wants to do. It's why people make anybody's games at all: to eventually make their own. And Hidden Path had struck out to do it right out of the gate. And it had almost worked.

The story begins in 2007, shortly after Jeff Pobst, Mark Terrano, Michael Austin, Jim Garbarini and Dave McCoy founded Hidden Path. It begins after they'd begun making Defense Grid and pitched the game to their contacts at Microsoft.

The founders had deep connections to Microsoft, so they pitched them a distribution deal: Hidden Path would make the game, Microsoft would distribute it on Xbox Live. For Microsoft, it was an easy sell. Microsoft, initially, loved the idea. The concept for the game was bold and brash. It was a downloadable title being developed for twice what downloadable titles normally cost to make at the time. The extra money was to be put into producing and polishing the game, potentially making it a premium offering for its Xbox Live lineup. Defense Grid, built by the men who worked at Microsoft's Advanced Technology Group and who made sure Xbox games played and looked better on Xbox than anywhere else, would be one of the most highly produced downloadables on Xbox.

Microsoft was hot for the game. It wanted quality games to announce at the 2007 Game Developers Conference as part of its then-new Xbox Live Arcade program. The problem: Hidden Path hadn't named the game yet. The working title "The Last Stand" had been taken by someone else. Hidden Path hadn't expected to need a name for months, but suddenly it had only weeks. Hidden Path scrambled, spent money and came up with Defense Grid. Maybe it wasn't perfect, but it worked. And it was theirs. And best of all, Hidden Path suddenly had a game in development for a flagship service on the best-selling console. With the increased attention and aggressive demand from Microsoft, the little studio, still in its first year of existence, felt like it had won the lottery.

For Microsoft, Hidden Path was just the sort of company to help promote Arcade — it was indie but comprised of veterans. Pobst had run a support department at the Advanced Technology Group at Xbox. Terrano had created Age of Empires 2. Austin also came from Xbox, and McCoy and Garbarini from the MechWarrior developer FASA. These five men threw their combined development expertise into one game: Defense Grid. It couldn't lose. It was planned for release in 2008. Everyone was excited. And then things changed.

Full story here.